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Blane Klemek column for May 22: Raptors return

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Thinking back over the past week, raptors come to mind.

I've seen American kestrels hovering above roadside ditches hunting for prey, or perched on power lines, probably doing the same, watching for prey - mice, voles, what have you. I also discovered two different wood duck houses occupied by nesting kestrels, their ki-ki-ki calls giving them away as they flew to a nearby perch to watch as I passed by.

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Other raptors that I've heard or seen in various locations throughout the Northland include bald eagles soaring high overhead, ospreys adding more sticks to their nests on top of their utility pole nesting platforms, and red-tailed hawks sitting on hay bales facing the morning sun.

As well, lest I forget, the nighttime "whoo-hoots" of vocalizing barred owls and great horned owls will never cease to provide me delight for as long as I shall live - plus, and if one considers the turkey vulture a raptor (which I do), then they, too, were observed - in abundance, I might add - their effortless "see-saw" flight, wings held outward from their bodies in the telltale V, nary a flap - enjoying gravity-defying thermal glides.

There are two more raptors, to be sure, that I also observed - two distinctly different raptors that each inhabit different environs, one being a raptor of open landscapes and one being a raptor of woodland haunts. One is long-tailed, the other short-tailed. One has long wings, one has short wings.

One of them is an accipiter, the other a buteo. One builds its nest on the ground in a prairie grassland or marsh meadow, while the other constructs a nest of sticks within mature deciduous trees deep in the forest. Indeed, one is often called marsh hawk, though it is really a northern harrier, while the other, although likely the lesser known of the two species, certainly much less observed given their niche, is the descriptively named broad-winged hawk.

When I think of the northern harrier, a.k.a. marsh hawk, a couple of experiences readily come to mind. One occurred on the Great Plains of North Dakota while I was conducting my graduate wildlife research project. On that particular day, I flushed a female harrier from a patch of tall grass near a clump of hawthorn trees. I could tell it was the female by her color - females are brown, males are gray; and of course by the characteristic dorsal white rump patch. After a brief search, I found her nest with five white eggs inside.

On another occasion, I was hunting sharp-tailed grouse in Beltrami County along the edge of a hay field and brushy area. I happened to be taking a break at the time, looking across the brushland, when I spotted a harrier flying slowly above the willows. The bird appeared to be hunting.

A moment later, evidently noticing me, the hawk abruptly turned and began flying directly toward me. When the harrier reached me, it circled scarcely a dozen feet above my head looking directly into my eyes. This was the first time I became acutely aware of the owl-like face of the northern harrier.

Now here's one of the fascinating facts of this elegant raptor. Harriers have a curved, facial ruff just like owls possess. Such an adaptation helps northern harriers collect and funnel the faint sounds of scurrying mammals and other prey to the hawk's ears as they fly a few yards above the ground. In other words, a harrier's face is a sound reflector, an amplifier if you will.

Regarding the other raptor, the broad-winged hawk, the hawk of the forest, here's a bird that is often heard before it is seen, if at all. Pay attention the next time you explore a woodland and you might be alerted by the high-pitched, thinly whistled territorial "teeteeeeee" of the broad-winged hawk.

Again, just a short time ago, while searching for morel mushrooms on the forest floor beneath large quaking aspen trees, I heard the revealing cry of this nondescript crow-sized raptor. Quickly searching the treetops for its location, I managed to spot the hawk perched on a branch of a leafless aspen.

A brownish raptor, the broad-winged hawk would be better named for its tail, not its "broad" wings (indeed, buteos are so classified together because of their relatively short, broad wings). Next to its distinctive call, the tail feathers of the broad-winged hawk should be all that's required to correctly identify this bird.

Perhaps sensing that I discovered its hiding spot or the bird was unnerved by my standing motionless, the hawk took flight, unintentionally exposing itself for me to see, and thus positively concluding its true identity, the evenly spaced, alternating black and white bands of its tail. As such, wouldn't then the broad-winged hawk be better named for its tail, the band-tailed hawk? I think so.

Both raptors, the northern harrier and the broad-winged hawk, have already established their respective breeding territories, have probably constructed their nests and are now beginning the tasks of laying and incubating eggs and raising their offspring. With incubation periods of about a month in duration, the subsequent hatching of young coincides wonderfully, as Nature intended, with the arrival of an abundance of prey such as small rodents, birds, amphibians, snakes and other reptiles, and even insects.

Yes, as I've said in the past, springtime's the best time. Woodland warblers to whip-poor-wills to thrushes to thrashers, they've all returned to the Northland once again, as have our seasonal raptors, including the northern harrier and broad-winged hawk, for us to observe and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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